Ruth Sawyer’s classic fairytale “A Sack of Truth” saved the lives of my sophomores and redeemed mine. Not only is the title brilliant and amped for discussion, but the tale smacks paradigmatic for classical education. It contains that which is really real and true.
I am now even more convinced of the power of fables and fairy tales to shape one into a right human being—and to truly educate by cultivating wisdom and virtue in the heart.
If you haven’t read the tale, I’ll briefly summarize: There lives a king in Spain. His daughter is ill. A doctor says only the finest pears in Spain will cure her. The king asks for the finest pears from all over to be brought and the one whose pears heal his daughter will be richly rewarded.
A poor peasant with three sons has a pear tree that produces other-worldly golden pears. He sends his oldest son to the king with a basket of pears. On the road he meets a sad-faced woman carrying a little child who asks him what he has in the basket. Rather than offering the sad woman and child a pear to eat, he snubs her. It is a kind of test. The woman turns his pears into horns. When he arrives to the king with horns, the king throws him into a dungeon.
The second son is sent with a basket. He responds to the needy woman in the same way and fails the test. He is also thrown into the dungeon.
Importantly, when the third son is introduced, this is what is said of him: “No one had ever thought him very clever, only kind and willing and cheerful.” When he meets the sad-faced woman he thinks to himself, “I must not be greedy with those pears. There is the old saying—‘He who plays the fox for a day, pays for a year.’” He uncovers the basket and gives a pear to the child.
He shows compassion and therefore passes the test and gets to the king. His pears heal the king’s daughter. The king offers him anything he wants. Again the story says, “he thought of the old saying: ‘gratitude is better scattered than kept in one’s pocket.’ He asks for the release of his brothers.
The rest of the story involves the sack of truth, but I won’t retell that part here. Essentially, things work out well for the youngest son.
In my class, we discussed much concerning this. Here are some of the questions I raised:
I asked if they were admitted to our very-hard-to-get-into high school because they were clever or because they were kind, willing, and cheerful. Clever was the obvious answer. I responded that as a result they have been admitted into an institution that desires to create the two older brothers.
Standard education is very interested in what a child can do or how much he or she knows (cleverness), not in who the child is.
I asked if the students’ very full and heavy backpacks were sacks of truth, sacks of knowledge, or sacks of BS :). We concurred that, unfortunately, they were not sacks of truth. And if they decided to call them sacks of knowledge, then through discussion we realized that it would have been better to call them sacks of BS because at least BS knows that it’s BS.
In other words, there’s a big difference between truth and knowledge. And there’s a big difference between knowing and knowledge. Notice that Aristotle said, “All men desire by nature to know.” He did not say “all men desire by nature, knowledge.”
Why are our schools founded upon gaining knowledge and not on desiring to know?
I asked what the youngest son did when he faced his crises, his moments of temptation.
The students said that he recalled two old sayings: “He who plays the fox for a day, pays for a year” and “gratitude is better scattered than kept in one’s pocket.”
I asked if he looked the sayings up on the internet.
I asked if a nearby animal shouted them out.
I asked how he knew the old sayings.
Students: he remembered them.
I asked where he got them:
Students: in fables and fairy tales.
I asked them what lines will come to them when they find themselves in their moments of high temptation.
Will they be lines from the latest blockbuster movie or video game?
Or maybe, just maybe…
If we read enough of them in the next nine months…
Classic fables and fairy tales.
By which we will fill our sacks of truth.
And save our souls. And a needy mother and child on the way… and maybe even the king’s daughter.